I hear it quite often. In fact, just the other day Dr. Fredrick K. C. Price in his weekly television program harped on it. “Religion is an abomination.” Thus, God hates religion. I wonder if these “theologians” (and I use that term loosely for televangelists) have ever read their Bible! Christianity is very much a religion. To be a Christian is to put one’s religion on display. “The cult of Christianity is the religion of the life, and the ceremonial cleanness is cleanness of conduct and heart” (Pulpit Commentary 27).
Admittedly, religion can be bad. Scripture talks about “worship of angels” (Col 2.18) where the same word for “religion” (Gk. threskeia) is used. Also, there is “self-made religion” (Col 2.23). However, just because religion can be perverted does not mean that religion should be completely abandoned. To the contrary, Scripture speaks of “pure and defiled religion” which one performs “before God” and which He apparently accepts. So instead of abandoning religion, should not Christians today be working to recapture the essence of true, pure, undefiled religion before God?
James has been moving his readers along in this section to this point. The focus has been on the “word of truth” (v.18), “the implanted word” (v.21), “the perfect law, even the law of liberty” (v.25). The call has been for the Jewish Christians to not only be hearers of the word but to do what it says and put it into practice. What does this obedience look like? In verses 26-27, James gets intensely practical by pointing out that the Christian’s religion is tied up in several actions he/she does before God.
26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The words used here for “religious” and “religion” are threskos and threskeia respectively. The first word appears nowhere else, either in the New Testament or in extra-biblical material. James appears to have coined a new and unique term. The latter word is used elsewhere in the New Testament and in various Greek works. It means piety, God-fearing, and also touches on the outward acts of worship in which one engages. James presents a staggering conclusion: the true test of religion is to be found in obedience to the heard word. Flowing from the discussion about doers who act or work, James presents both the good and bad side of religion.
Worthless Religion (v.26)
Worthless religion is work-less Christianity. The Christian is God’s workmanship “created in Christ Jesus for good works” in which he/she is to walk (Eph 2.10). The Christian is saved by grace through faith (Eph 2.8); this is a faith which works the works of Christ. Without these works, our religion is “worthless.” This word worthless is no doubt chosen on purpose. This word is used constantly in the Septuagint (LXX) to speak of the gods of the nations; these gods are “worthless” or “vain.” They stand juxtaposed to the one true and living God. So too religion that is lived not in accordance with the revealed word of God is likewise “worthless” or “vain.” Truly, it is a form of idolatry, indeed, the worst kind of idolatry – self-deification. God and His standard have been abandoned and man and his standard have replaced Him. One may think wrongly that he is a religious, pious, God-fearing person. But if his actions run contrary to the word of God, in reality his religion is empty, void of the power of God’s word. It has become nothing more than worthless idolatry.
Specifically in this context, James addresses one aspect of the Christian’s religion that if absent makes it worthless: control over speech. This has already come up with James (v.19, “slow to speak”) and will come up again (3.2-12; 4.11-12). This is a key component to living like Christ. It is an ingredient to obedience to the word of God. If one does not “bridle his tongue,” a metaphor picturing a horse being lead by a bridle, then his religion is “worthless.” There seems to be an allusion to Psalm 39.1 here which speaks of muzzling the mouth. In addition, this person is self-deceived. He is lying to himself! The importance of taming the tongue is seen here. Here is a very vital component to living life in accordance with the word of God.
Too many Christians today wreck their religion by failing to bridle the tongue. In fact, far too often our speech mimics the world’s rather than Christ’s. How many among the brethren show up Sunday morning and sing praise to God only to revert to “sailorspeak” Tuesday afternoon? Thus, they have an appearance of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim 3.5). “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works (Titus 1.16). “My brothers, these things ought not be so” (James 3.10b). Christian, clean up your mouth lest your religion be found to be worthless.
Worthy Religion (v.27)
James points his brethren to worthy religion. This religion is worthy because it is able to be “before God.” The reason it can be before our God and Father is because 1) it is in accordance with His and therefore 2) is pure and undefiled. These words have to do with precious stones or gems. “Pure” is to be from anything which would soil the appearance (i.e. with a stone, dirt). “Undefiled” is to be free from deformity or defect (i.e. in a gem, blemish). Hence, this religion is presented both positively and negatively. But it is also religion “before God.” The Greek word for “before” (para) can also mean “beside.” In this instance, it seems to indicate that this is religion “with” God and from His perspective. He is right there beside us, with us as we seek pure and proper piety patterned after the Prince of peace. Two areas of concentration are presented for the Christian to pursue. Note that our duty to our fellow man is placed before our duty to self.
Pure religion consists in the exercise of active benevolence in a world of suffering. “To visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (ESV). Here is imitation of the Father. Indeed, even in Jesus ministry He spoke to disciples, urging them to “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6.36). God has always been concerned for the orphans and widows. In the Law, the Israelites were instructed not to reap the edges of their fields, go back for a sheaf left in the field, or beat the olives from their trees for these were for “the poor,” “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Lev 19.9-10; Deut 24.19-21). When the Israelites neglected to care for the fatherless and widows, God pronounced judgment and called for repentance (See Isa 1.16-17; Micah 6.8). Thus, God has always been concerned about the orphans and the widows (Psa 68.5). Under the Christian dispensation, this has not gone away and James reminds his brothers of this important fact. In fact, to exercise this religious function is to imitate Christ who “went about doing good” during His earthly ministry (Acts 10.38).
Truly, then, obedience to the word and to be a “doer that works” (v.25) is to take care of the widows (those bereft of husband) and orphans (those bereft of father or mother or both). But what does that mean? Digging even deeper, the word which James uses here for “to visit” is also used in his speech in Acts 15 (verse 14). “God visited the Gentiles” and Simeon (Peter) related how God did that: by sending Peter to preach that they might hear and believe the gospel, ultimately resulting in their reception of the Holy Spirit. Hence, God visited the Gentiles by sending part of Himself, the Holy Spirit, to be with them. In the same way, James points Christians to service beyond proxy (i.e. sending money and gifts, etc.); physically go and be with the orphans and widows. Examine their plight. See it with your own eyes. Be there with them and for them “in their affliction,” that is, suffering. Suffer with them (see Rom 12.15). As a shepherd of the church, no doubt James had suffered with many widows and cared for many suffering orphans. Out of that experience, he calls for his brethren to unite around the suffering ones of their number. Note that orphans come before widows. Adam Clarke says, “This is the religion of Christ. The religion that does not prove itself by works of charity and mercy is not of God. Reader, what religion hast thou? Has thine ever led thee to cellars, garrets, cottages, and houses, to find out the distressed? Hast thou ever fed, clothed, and visited a destitute representative of Christ?”
Pure religion consists of the maintenance of personal purity in a world of sin. “To keep oneself unstained from the world” (ESV). “To keep” is a military term for when a prisoner was kept under guard by soldiers. James calls his Christian brothers to fortify themselves and be ever watchful for pollutants from the world (cf. 1.14-15). This present tense infinitive carries the weight of something like “keep on keeping on being free from spot.” The Christian’s habitual practice is to be free from stain from the world. This is more than dirt of course; James is speaking metaphorically about moral purity. This fallen world is full of dirt and dust, grime and grease, slime and sludge which bespatters the best of men. But a life which seeks to imitate Christ’s moral uprightness and be free from the vices of mankind practices a worthy religion with God.
So James calls Christians to live in the world an unworldly life (see John 17.11, 14). This kind of religion is pure in the eyes of God. It seems clear from these verses that James was writing to a people who believed in Jesus but did not practice their devotion in their lives. They were deceived, even self-deceived about the true nature of Christian religion. They believed they were saved without the practice of true Christian religion. How many today believe the same thing! James will reach the pinnacle of this thought in chapter two when he writes “faith without works is dead” (2.26). Or to borrow the language this context: religion without action is worthless.